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HIV Treatment Options

Treatment of HIV is a balance of attitude and action. Learning how therapies work, possible side effects and figuring out if you’re ready can help when you talk with your doctor. Until you start medication, eating well, getting lots of rest and reducing stress help your body. If you use drugs, making it safer will help you stay healthy.

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are a number of different drugs called antiretrovirals (shortened to ART). ART slows the progress of HIV, improving quality and length of life. A person with HIV who starts on treatment and has good health care could live into their 70s.

How do HIV treatments work?

HIV invades healthy cells in the immune system, makes copies of itself, and then sends the copies out to infect more healthy cells. This is a multi-step process. A combination of antiretrovirals (also called combination therapy or antiretroviral therapy) is used to interrupt the replication of HIV in different steps of the process. This controls the virus longer than one drug can, because HIV can develop resistance to the effects of medication. If HIV cannot infect new cells and make copies of itself, its strength in your body weakens and your immune system can become stronger.

Possible Side Effects

There can be side effects to antiretroviral drugs. Some people will tolerate them more easily than others. Side effects usually occur in the first month or two of treatment and lessen over time. When starting on treatment, ask your doctor what to expect and how to manage the side effects. Tell your doctor about anything you do experience. It may be possible to switch medications. Don’t ever stop taking your medications without first talking to your doctor.

Common side effects:

  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • skin rash (some rashes can be a sign of a serious allergic reaction, so talk to your doctor promptly if they develop)
  • headaches
  • strange dreams
  • loss of appetite
  • weight gain or loss in certain areas of the body (gain in breasts and belly; loss in face, arms, and legs)

Women may react differently than men to some drugs. Ask your doctor about the drugs he or she suggests: is there information about how they might be different for women?  More men than women take part in research on new drugs, so we don’t know all the reasons why women may respond differently.

Lifestyle Changes

When you start on treatment, your doctor will tell you the ideal schedule for taking your pills to keep the level of medication in your body consistent. This is important to avoid resistance. If you have an unpredictable schedule or imagine challenges, be up front with your doctor so they can figure out the best medications for you- there are more available now than ever. If you don’t take your medication on a regular schedule, HIV can become resistant and your options for treatment can become limited.

Antiretrovirals and Complementary Treatments

While ART is the best option to control HIV, some people use complementary or alternative therapies. Complementary (used alongside drug options) or alternative (instead of drug options) therapies come in different forms. No complementary or alternative therapies can cure HIV, so if someone says they will, they’re probably just out for your money! Different kinds of complentary and alternative therapies include:

  • vitamins
  • herbal remedies
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
  • acupuncture
  • yoga
  • massage
  • meditation
  • visualization

For more detailed information about complementary and alternative therapies, see CATIE’s terrific guide.


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